State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Water Security: Finding Solutions for a World at Risk

Desertification in Niger. Source: United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
Desertification in Niger. Source: United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

The growth in human population, coupled with climate change, is making access to fresh water a contentious issue, and the solutions are a complex mix of individual choices and broad social and economic policies.

But solutions are in our grasp, if we can find the will to act.

“This is a mess, and it is a mess that we have not attended to yet,” Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs said at a conference on water security held today at Columbia University. “Humanity is the driver, but we don’t have our hands on the steering wheel very much.”

Hundreds of students and other interested citizens attended and many more joined online for the conference, co-hosted by the Columbia Water Center and co-sponsored by the PepsiCo Foundation. The State of the Planet 2013 was one of a series being held by the Earth Institute to highlight major issues the world confronts as it tries to move toward a sustainable future. (You can watch a webcast here.)

With the world population already moving beyond 7 billion people, the stakes are enormous: How can we continue to provide enough safe water for drinking and sanitation, grow enough food for everyone, supply industry and preserve the natural world?

The world is seeing the effects of water stress: In many areas we’re already drawing down supplies faster than they’re being replenished. The recent drought has affected 60 percent of the continental area of the United States, devastated crops and driven up world food prices. In sub-Saharan Africa, ongoing drought not only cuts into food supply but drives migration and civil conflict. In India, the “green revolution” that has fed the subcontinent threatens to decimate underground water supplies.

Natural climate variability – such as periodic dry spells and damaging storms that cause flooding and erosion – already demands better planning and conservation. Climate change will exacerbate these problems. Columbia Professor Mark Cane of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory said global warming is likely to make already dry areas drier, and wet areas wetter. When drought hits, things will be worse off. And, he said, the solutions that work today might not work in the future.

Right now we’re only using about 4 percent of the available fresh water on the planet, noted Brian Richter, director of global freshwater strategies for The Nature Conservancy. But that’s what is affordable and accessible; the rest of the supply is largely hard, and costly, to deliver.

We need to talk about what water is available within our economic reach. “We all have to figure out how to use less water,” he said, and “we really have to move to a cap-and-trade system in a lot of these places, we have to facilitate the movement [of water] toward more efficient uses.”

State of the Planet 2013, :aura Trevelyan, Richard Sandor
The BBC’s Laura Trevelyan with Richard Sandor, founder of several climate exchanges for trading carbon, at the State of the Planet 2013 conference on March 28.

How we manage the financial side of the equation will be key. Water already is in effect a commodity, traded through surrogates such as agricultural products. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of fresh water usage: 500 gallons for every chicken raised, 2,000 gallons for every steak, noted Richard L. Sandor, a financial markets expert who delivered the keynote address today. Sandor has specialized in environmental financial futures, founding a series of climate exchanges around the world for trading carbon.

“Water will be the biggest commodity of the 21st century,” he predicted. We need to build the market for water in ways that are regulated and transparent, establishing who has property rights for water resources and setting up legal frameworks in ways that allow us to put a price on water without depriving humans of their basic needs.

Pollution from farms entering the Chesapeake Bay, for instance, hurts the fishermen who make their living there; clean water has a value that needs to be recognized, and accounted for on both sides of that equation, he said.

“You don’t need to take a shower in New Mexico, or plant Kentucky bluegrass – but if you do, it should cost you something,” Sandor said. “We need to create financial incentives to achieve social objectives.”

Some businesses already see the value in clean water. As a resource, water is an important component of business success for a company like PepsiCo, Rich Delaney, the corporation’s senior vice president for operations, said. The company, with more than 500 manufacturing plants in 120 countries, needs to preserve the resource for its business, but also to maintain vital relationships with its local communities and its consumers.

“More and more, our consumers are raising the bar on managing resources well,” he said.

The corporation works to conserve and recycle water more efficiently in its operations. And, the philanthropic PepsiCo Foundation funds projects to help farmers use water more efficiently, and to develop better local water systems in underserved communities (some of those projects are being operated through the Columbia Water Center).

One audience member asked: Shouldn’t water be a right, and not a commodity?

State of the Planet 2013, Vijay Modi, Jeffrey Sachs
Vijay Modi and Jeffrey Sachs at State of the Planet 2013 on March 28.

“Water is a scarce and valuable resource; it requires a price to use efficiently; but that’s only a partial perspective,” Sachs responded. What happens, he asked, when the price of water becomes too high for the poor?

“If you reflect on the saying that water is life [you realize that] if you price water out of the reach of people that is a pretty serious offense,” Sachs said. “Markets don’t solve that problem.”

He proposed some form of a “lifeline tariff,” under which everyone in a community would be able to get a basic amount of water for free, or a minimal price. For additional usage, the price would go up. Such a system might be managed using “smart cards” that can track how much people use and how they pay for it, he said.

“Until that happens I fear the idea that turning water over to markets will be devastating for the poor,” Sachs said. “But without markets, it will be devastating for the problem of supply.”

As the population keeps expanding, will we be able to meet everyone’s water needs?

“From the technological and biological point of view, we can do it,” said Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center. “Are we going to do it anytime soon? No.”

Among the solutions, he said, there is great opportunity for better efficiency in agriculture. The water center works in India to help farmers reduce water consumption with the help of tools that monitor soil moisture levels and better irrigation systems. It also looks at whether farmers are growing the right crops in the right places, to reduce demand for water by planting drought-resistant crops in drier areas, for instance.

“Technically we know how to solve the problems,” Lall said. “But the business model is not there.”

Vijay Modi, director of the Modi Research Group at Columbia, noted that in some areas, more people have cell phones than adequate sanitation services. The question, he said, is how to match in water systems what has happened in the explosive expansion of mobile communications technology. The answers, he said, are varied and complex.

Governments should be able to pay for the initial infrastructure of pipes and water tanks and other major systems. The larger problem is how to pay to get the water “the last mile” – bringing it close to households, and staffing and maintaining the systems. And, how to best allocate water supplies so everyone gets a basic amount of drinking water, especially when supplies are short.

The issue “has to be approached with humility; we don’t have a magic solution,” Modi said.

State of the Planet 2013
Hundreds attended the Sate of the Planet 2013 conference in March to listen and talk about water security.

So, what can one person do?, asked another audience member.

Several speakers agreed that the most effective solution is simply to eat less meat, or none at all, since it takes so much more water to produce it.

Mark Cane had another approach: “The first thing is tear out your lawn.” More than half of domestic water consumption goes onto people’s yards, Richter noted.

On a community scale, Cane suggested looking around at what might be causing problems for the natural environment in your own town and trying to work with others to solve them.

For more on the conference, visit the website, or check out the hashtag #sopwater on Twitter.

You can find out more about the speakers here.


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Kaled Alamarie
Kaled Alamarie
10 years ago

You can solve water problems in rich countries by introducing technology such as desalination and by driven water price up. However, you can’t solve water scarcity in poor countires that have population explosion, uses more than 85% of available water for agriculture, corrupt government and incompetent water managerrs?

Barron Barber
Barron Barber
10 years ago

the answer is yet again technology. the technology to harvest water from the air and to recycle our bodily fluids into drinkable hydrogen. It may sound dramatically science fiction, but the reality is that the technology to accomplish it is actually very basic. we must prepare for the worst unless we know precisely what types and intensities of planetary climatic occurrences climate change will bring in the future. The time of simply living has come to an end, Now is the time of Humankind and it’s prosperity’s survival.